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Chocolate from the Source

Posted May 14 2009 5:01pm
Warned off of the advertised chocolate making tours posted around town, we asked Eric, our host at the veg-owned Cashew Hill Jungle Lodge in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica, for an alternative. On a small piece of paper he sketched out a rough map and sent us to to see how an indigenous Bribri family a few kilometers down the road make chocolate.

Securing the hoods of our coats against steady rain, my friends and I headed for town in search of someone willing to drive us out to the chocolate house. It had been raining for a week. The roads, which rank as moderately treacherous at their best, had turned into sinking muddy minefields of holes full of calf-deep water, a fact we knew well having walked ourselves into Puerto Viejo several nights ago from the lonely Bar Pen where our bus had stopped, unable to take us any further. Walking down to the swollen sea, crashing gray against the beach that had been reduced to a slick wet strip of dark sand between road and water, we roused some reluctant attention from a group of men sitting under a porch awning near the deserted bus stop. "¿ Taxi?"

" Si. Hola señor. ¿Sabe donde está la casa del cacao cerca de Bribri?"

He did, más o menos as it turned out, but we were off, piling into his old brown car and bouncing down the road as Afro-Caribbean ballads trickled through the fuzzy radio. Receiving some unwelcome spinal adjustments, we ricocheted around the car as it traversed the temporary bridge that stood in for the one which had been washed out in the rains, muddy water splashed up around us as our pirate taxi continued to carefully pick out a path on the pitted road. But as we pressed on down the road, it seemed that the rain was breaking. Watercolor pale brushes of blue were bleeding out of the gray sky. We smiled at each other and experimentally shook off our raincoats. Things were looking up, we were on our way to learn about chocolate.

Expertly negotiating a left hand turn as the sun boldly broke out of a clump of gray clouds, we jangled down a few more kilometers of road to find ourselves exiting the car at a small dirt driveway leading down to Cacao House on the edge of the Talamanca Jungle. Taking the driver's cell number and promising to call him if we needed a hair-rising ride back into town, but silently praying that the weather would hold and a walk back into Puerto Viejo would seem like an adventure, we clamored down hill to be greeted by the family and taken around to explore their cacao operation.

Their home was set in front of a hillside dense with cacao trees. All around us, the family pointed to the cacao fruit ripening. Here a bright yellow fruit, there a knobbled green one, softly purple striped fruit rubbed against ripened orange ones. On the hillside, monkeys and birds rustled. The owner shooed them from afar and gently cursed the monas who were always stealing her cacao.

When people express surprise that I, as a vegan, eat chocolate (I guess because chocolate seems inextricably connected to milk or cream for many), I always explain that chocolate is made primarily from a fruit. It comes as a surprise to many, but even knowing as I do about the cacao pods and their translucent fleshy seeds which can be transformed into sublime confections, it is amazing to hold a cacao fruit in your hand and realize that it is the building block of all those dark bars of chocolate.

Inside the banana leaf-lined workshop, we were treated to a view of the whole process of transforming the cacao fruit into chocolate. Though the Bribri people traditionally used cacao more for more medicinal applications than enjoyment, they did, and do, consume some mind-altering delicious hot chocolate made simply with cacao paste, raw cane sugar and water. Some, like the family we visited, do now produce chocolate "bars" for sale outside their community. These tiny bars, made with ingredients harvested around their land, like nutmeg, coconut, ginger and mint, are what we got to see being made.

First, the cacao fruit is cracked open with a machete. The little white fleshy bits inside look like big white nibs of corn or hominy, but are softer and squishy. They have an indescribable flavor that reminds me of Southeast Asian fruits like lychees or rambutans and possess, actually, a similar texture.

Thees fleshy fruit bits are removed, leaving the big broad cacao beans behind.

A low fire is then prepared to gently toast the beans. The heat is monitored and kept under even control with the aid of a big banana leaf fan.

With careful and constant stirring, the beans are toasted over the flame. As the beans are toasted, a pure, earthy scent of unsweetened chocolate begins to trickle out as the oils warm and the beans begin to crackle.

After allowing the toasted beans to cool, they are crushed with a heavy wooden rolling pin. As the beans were being crushed and cracked, I began too frantically compose my Spanish, knowing that the first thing which came to mind, quiero, meaning I want, was not the most polite declaration. But I did want. These were the freshest cacao nibs I was likely to ever have in my life and the scent of warm, toasty pure chocolate was killing me. Fortunately, we were soon offered a taste and like a small and greedy child, I elbowed my friends out of the way to get first grab.

Sated with my handful of nibs, I chewed the deliciously crunchy bits of cacao, marveling at the supremely satisfying nutty-chocolate flavor, and watched as the husks of the beans were picked away. The final step in the process was then to grind the nibs into a cacao liqueur and mix it with cane sugar and additional ingredients for flavor to produce the most intriguing, rustic and compellingly fresh chocolate I have ever had.

The texture of the chocolate was worlds apart from the smooth bars that shine and snap with a satisfyingly clean sound, but we were a world apart, so that seemed as it should be. Pleasantly gritty with raw cane sugar and roughly conched nibs, this chocolate crumbled onto the tongue and then melted unevenly in waves of flavor, the chocolate, the jungle earth, the sweetness of the sugar crystals, the toothsome spice of freshly rough-grated nutmeg, it all rolled in a pleasant jangle across our tongues and made our eyes sparkle. Wow, we said. Holy crap, that's amazing. And it was. Not just for the flavors, intense and fresh and so close to the place from which all the ingredients had grown, but for the knowledge of each step that had gone into making the delicate little bits of chocolate that melted in our mouths.

The sun had truly and wildly broken out by the time we emerged from tasting and talking and exploring the chocolate workshop. Giddy on sugar and an indescribable feeling of something like blessing at being able to understand how much bounty and possibility there is in transforming elements of the natural world through completely gentle and respectful means, we tromped through muddy roads for kilometers talking chocolate, talking chickens, talking everything that we passed, worrying about the flood lines on houses, wondering at how vulnerable we are in a world that for all we know about it still holds us at its mercies, until we reached the black sands and sea again. Instinctively, we ran for it, crashing into warm water to wash away the grit and grime.

Just as there is nothing like the experience of eating chocolate made right in front of you, there is nothing like running fully clothed into the ocean, just for the joy of it.

Our next sunny morning in Puerto Viejo, we sought out the highly recommended Caribeans, an open-air cafe and coffee roaster. Luck was with us as well as the sun because Paul, the founder, was there to talk to us about Caribeans business practices, give us samples of their homemade macadamia nut butter and make up a cocoa nib granola with soymilk and slices of local bananas.

Caribeans uniquely does not own the farms from which their coffee and cacao beans come from. Rather, they continually negotiate with the growers for their products. Paul explained how, just as it was important to him that he have a relationship with the growers, it was important to have a relationship with his customers, which is why their products are pretty much only available at that little spot on the beach in Puerto Viejo.

I left Caribeans with several bags of espresso and a big bar of their baker's chocolate.

...Some of which went into these completely Costa Rican chocolate cupcakes with whipped espresso ganache frosting, which we later enjoyed back home, reminiscing about our time in Puerto Viejo.

Now, of course, it is not always possible to enjoy chocolate straight from the source like this, but there are some nicely ethical options easily available in the States. From my own backyard, Taza, produces some similarly rustic stoneground chocolate on reconditioned Mexican chocolate equipment in Somerville, MA. Their beans are grown with a social and environmental consciousness and they are purchased under direct trade criteria and their website contains transparent information about their principals and practices. You can even learn about how your particular bar was made, who made it, who grew the beans and when it was produced by entering the batch number from the back of your bar.

Another non-organic, but social and environmentally engaged chocolate that I like is Vintage Plantations. Plantations works to develop and implement sustainable cultivation methods for cacao that protect the rain forest and appropriately compensate growers. They are also involved in the Rainforest Alliance, a conservation agency that is not as cool as Rainforest Action Network, but is at least in the good fight.

Olive Oil Orange Cake with Dagoba Organic Cocoa Nibs

I used to be a big fan of Dagoba, but I hesitate in recommending their products since they were purchased by Hershey, which is notorious for poor labor and environmental practices, not to mention poor product. Dagoba offers a lot of information about their own practices, which you can read here. It's just a matter of determining whether its possible to support a company who you feel pretty good about when it is owned by another company that is pretty repellent. Given the tangled web of ownership and the constant gobbling up of small, successful companies by larger ones, this is a area of ethical purchasing that can quickly make you feel crazy, potentially hypocritical and limited, but it's worth thinking through when possible.

A new and really interesting chocolate maker from San Francisco, TCHO, makes a socially responsible vegan chocolate that is incredibly good. TCHO uses TCHOSource to "enable farmers to become premium producers and create...relationship[s] of mutual self-interest that [go] beyond Fair Trade." If you can, try their "chocolatey" flavor and revel in it.

Divine Chocolate gets double stars for offering organic and fair trade chocolate from the Kuapa Kokoo cooperative in Ghana who co-own the company. Divine offers many non-vegan chocolates, but do provide very clear labeling and make a truly great mint chocolate bar. Also organic and fairtrade with many vegan options for their chocolate is another neighbor of mine, Equal Exchange. For bulk purchasing chocolate, cocoa powder and cocoa butter (which I use to make white chocolate), I use Sweet Earth Organics. They certify their chocolates as vegan, fair trade and organic, which is, you know, sweet.

Before I sign off, let me assure you there is more chocolate to come, including the chocolate dipped caramels I've promised, as well as a video on making dark chocolate olive oil truffles, just in time for Valentine's Day! Thank you so much for the overwhelming response to my previous chocolate post. I've received a great deal of email on chocolates and chocolate making and I'll definitely get to it all, apologies if you are waiting. In in the meantime, I hope this will help answer many of the frequently asked questions on my chocolate sources.
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